Many years ago my husband, Hank, bought me a T-shirt that read “I used to be schizophrenic, but we’re just fine now.”
We joke about the crazy woman he married. The unconventional wife who reinvents herself every decade or so and still doesn’t know who she wants to be when she grows up. And, as the shirt suggests, there’s more than one of me in this marriage.
There’s Ellen the Student who spends her days reading, learning, studying and gathering information. Ellen the Fearful who lurches between flailing and failing, afraid to trust in her natural abilities. And Ellen the Observer, who watches it all from the sidelines and sometimes offers guidance, reassurance and encouragement with great sweetness. Other times her words are vicious, filled with paralyzing shame and blame.
Then there’s good Ellen, bad Ellen, repressed Ellen, defensive Ellen, vain Ellen, kind Ellen and Ellen the Big Bitch. Perhaps you know her. We’re one big happy family.
A few months ago I’d been asked by event planners at a travel conference to present a session on storytelling and travel: to talk about why story matters, how to become better storytellers and how narrative deepens and enriches the travel experience. I was delighted because travel and storytelling have transformed the way I live, work and view the world.
So Ellen the Student dug in; researching, data collecting and studying the intricacies and characteristics of the world’s best storytellers. I dissected my favorite books, surfed the Web for how-to articles and watched TED talks by gifted raconteurs like author Isabelle Allende, Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie and many others.
I got lost in other people’s stories and a period of excitement followed, leading me to believe that I too could tell stories that would inspire and inform.
And then the time came. I boarded the plane, checked into the hotel, collected my blue presenter’s name badge and fell immediately ill with a malaise of uncertainty whose main symptom was self-sabotage.
My days at the conference were tainted with toxic habits. I could hardly believe how quickly I abandoned myself. I skipped meals to spend extra time in preparation, gobbled potato chips and chocolate bars from the minibar and stayed up late, sacrificing sleep to practice the presentation.
Fearful Ellen had me in a vice grip. I was sick with anxiety. I saw the insanity of my behavior but couldn’t seem to stop myself and it left me feeling deeply ashamed and frustrated.
By the time I had to teach, I was exhausted and wired and stammered my way through a presentation I should’ve been proud of.
Considering all that, I did okay. Obsessive preparation has an upside. The audience and my colleagues were attentive and generous with their support.
But I hate being the kind of person who lets fear get the best of her. I hate that I lacked the poise and confidence to relax and let my innate storyteller shine. And I knew better than to take myself so damn seriously.
Ellen the Observer just shook her head, like a patient and loving parent with a wayward adolescent who has screwed up again.
This fear of not being good enough is an old story and one that I’d hoped was behind me. As if fear was a destination—been there, done that—and not a journey.
As I see things, there’s always a lesson in discomfort and my job is to dig for the deeper meaning and to find growth in the experience. So I decided to return home, nourish myself, catch up on sleep and then ask myself the questions that haunted me: Why had I chosen to sabotage my potential and how could I do better in the future?
Instead I arrived to the terrible news that my friend Nina had been murdered in a violent home invasion. In the awful moment that I learned the grizzly details of the stabbing that had ended her vibrant life, my petty fears and disappointments disappeared. In their place was a searing sadness.
Over the next few weeks I ignored the emails in my bulging inbox, escaped into afternoon movies, sat in the sunshine, slept late and went to bed early. I was sad that a friend’s future had been taken away and experienced ferocious surges of love for Hank. I Googled fatal stomach knife wounds in an attempt to determine if death had come quickly. I got sadder.
And then I got to thinking about life and death and priorities, how death is real and how it can come without warning. I felt a stab of sadness at the thought of ever losing Hank, but I also thought about how Nina and I had laughed and shared and talked about things that really mattered. And this made me happy.
I asked myself how I could best honor my friend’s life and concluded the answer was to honor my own. To listen to the voice of intuition when it whispers my life purpose. To not let insecurities hold me back. To polish and trust in my natural talents and walk boldly through doors of opportunity. To remember that life is bigger than fear and death and multiple personalities. To live until I die.
What about you? How do you face fear and grief? Use the comment box below to share. I’d love to learn what helps you.